Improbably combining the heartfelt optimism of Taylor Swift with the literate soulfulness of Alicia Keys and the melismatic virtuosity of Mariah Carey, Tori Kelly's full-length album, 2015's Unbreakable Smile, is a thrilling, positive-minded debut. Although Kelly had been an active performer since she was a child, appearing on America's Most Talented Kids and even walking away from a recording contract with Geffen when she was just 12 years old, it wasn't until she struck out on her own as an adult that she began gaining wider recognition. In fact, it was getting booted off American Idol in 2010 that ultimately set her down the creative path toward writing her own songs and recording Unbreakable Smile.
Produced by Max Martin (Kelly Clarkson, P!nk, Ellie Goulding), Unbreakable Smile finds Kelly expanding upon the stripped-down vibe of her initial EPs, 2012's Handmade Songs and 2013's Foreward, with a set of emotive, well-crafted songs that straddle the line between melodic rock and contemporary R&B, and acoustic singer/songwriter pop. Part of what makes Kelly so extraordinary is that, while being a truly gifted vocalist (she has perfect pitch), she's also an adept guitarist and songwriter who works as her own best accompanist. As her acoustic EPs proved, she almost doesn't need a producer, let alone a mega-producer like Martin, to knock your socks off. Nor does she need the help of saccharine Brit Ed Sheeran, although his presence dueting on "I Was Made for Loving You" only serves to back up the notion that Kelly is a knockout vocalist.
In fact, one of the best tracks on Unbreakable Smile isn't even a full track, but just the album's 1:27 intro number, "Where I Belong." An acoustic, heartfelt declaration of grounded self-awareness, it's a low-key yet absolutely stunning way for Kelly to kick things off and sets you up perfectly for what's to come. And though she immediately dives headlong into a sonically juicy, old-school '90s R&B-inspired aesthetic, she never gets overwhelmed by the production. On the contrary, cuts like the summery, Janet Jackson-esque title track, the funky, Brand New Heavies-sounding "Expensive," and the hypnotic, unrequited relationship anthem "Should've Been Us" are universally relatable, utterly infectious songs that you immediately want to hear again. Ultimately, Unbreakable Smile illustrates Kelly's struggles to remain true to her own astute, artistic vision in the face of an industry that often seems to exhibit a perplexing mistrust of real, organic talent. As Kelly sings on the exuberant title track, "La da da da dee, you're not breaking me."